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Delink food entitlement from poverty measures, say economists

Delink food entitlement from poverty measures, say economists

New Delhi: A week after the Planning Commission submitted to India’s top court an affidavit on its assessment of who the poor are, several leading economists have urged the government to delink food entitlements from what they call “faulty" poverty measures.

Last week, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court, India’s apex planning body said the spending threshold per capita for the poverty line was 32 per day (per person) in cities and 26 in villages, according to provisional analysis based on a method suggested in 2009 by a committee led by Suresh D. Tendulkar.

However, 27 of the country’s leading economists including former West Bengal finance minister Ashok Mitra; Prabhat Patnaik, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU); chairman of 1977 task force on poverty estimation, Yoginder K. Alagh; and JNU professor Jayati Ghosh issued a statement rejecting the official national poverty lines set by the Planning Commission.

“We strongly believe that it is unacceptable and counterproductive to link the official poverty estimates to basic entitlements of the people, especially access to food. Official surveys of nutritional intakes and outcomes indicate that under-nutrition is more widespread than income poverty, however defined," the statement said.

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The methodology followed for the census divides rural households into three categories: those that have to be compulsorily excluded, those that have to be compulsorily included, and those that fall in-between. In the last category, households will be ranked according to seven deprivation criteria.

Below poverty line estimates are crucial since they determine the beneficiaries of a number of government’s social welfare programmes including those eligible for the public distribution system (PDS). More importantly, they will also determine a key set of beneficiaries under the proposed National Food Security Bill, the draft of which is now in the public domain.

The economists, in their statement, have also emphasized on the superiority of a universal PDS and have urged the government to do away with the targeted system introduced since 1997.

Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, in a letter last week to the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, said that relying on the planning body’s estimates to arrive at cut-offs was unlikely to address the real issue.

“We have not made any new policy decision. The Supreme Court asked us how we calculate the poverty line, we gave the factual explanation," said Ahluwalia.. “I believe the explanation we have given is factually correct."

PTI contributed to this story.

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